So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Read: 23 September, 2018

I wish that this had been available when I was a teenager. I had a feeling that something was wrong when I got caught up in all the post-Columbine and 9/11 “Zero Tolerance” theatre. Everyone I met, from school officials to probation officers to social workers to casual bystanders who heard about my situation, would repeat the same line: “You don’t belong here.”

Of course I didn’t. That’s the whole point of Zero Tolerance – you take kids who haven’t done anything violent, who haven’t endangered people, who are at most guilty of minor disciplinary issues, and you whack at them as hard as you can. But why was I singled out as the one who “didn’t belong” and not all the other kids in the same boat?

Even then, in the infancy of my awareness, I knew what set me apart. I was white, female, middle class, and spoke like the child of an academic. The other kids who went to the same mandated group therapy meetings? They were black and/or lower class. They “belong”.

Eager to get out of that mess, I played up what set me apart. I dyed my hair back to a natural colour, I changed my wardrobe to brighter colours, I smiled a lot and pitched my voice a little higher. I did my year, then I got to finish high school and go to college and, still, every time someone finds out about my past, it’s a big surprise. “You were expelled?!” I could perform people’s expectations of the “good kid” because my skin and my upbringing didn’t betray me. And, because of that, I had strangers fighting for me, fighting to get my record expunged so it wouldn’t affect my future. Because of the way I looked, I was deemed to have a future worth saving.

I highly recommend this book. Each chapter is a different issue, phrased as a question, that Oluo responds to in a perfect combination of personal experience and “high level” trends. She shows the big picture, but her examples are grounded and realistic, and bridge that difficult gap between understanding a concept and understanding it.

I love that Oluo takes intersectionality seriously. She devotes an entire chapter to the “model minority” myth that affects Asian Americans, and brings up multiple examples throughout the book of ableism, sexism, homophobia, etc. She examines, with depth and frankness, her own baggage and her own hard-won lessons. This is a book for everyone. On any given issue, there will be either a lesson or a validation no matter what your identity.

Black Man by Richard Morgan

Read: 5 June, 2010

Black Man (or Thirteen, as it’s known in the US) envisions a future in which genetically modified super-soldiers have come and gone. Carl Marsalis is a ‘Variant Thirteen’ whose escaped persecution by becoming persecutor, his job is to use his enhanced abilities to hunt down others like himself.

It was an interesting book with a rather frightening image of the future. For one thing, the US has been split apart by ideology, with a vast portion fenced off and backwards, an anti-technology society referred to as ‘Jesusland.’ The hints dropped throughout the book about how this future came about are frighteningly plausible.

Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that the book contains quite a bit of graphic violence. It did verge on the gratuitous at times, but it fights with the context. Thirteens are hated and excluded from society precisely because of their psychopathic violent tendencies.

I’ve read that the name was changed in the US to avoid the more racially-charged title. It’s a shame, because the fact that Carl Marsalis is black plays a fairly important role in the story. The whole idea of the ‘Variant Thirteen,’ people who are seen as not quite people, echoes back to the rhetoric we’ve so often heard in the context of race. To censor the title, eliminating the big neon sign pointing at the analogy of the book, doesn’t avoid racism. Rather, it just hides it – and it’s questionable just how much use not talking about a problem can have in fixing it.

All in all, a solid future-fiction with a good plot and an excellent premise.

Buy Thirteen / Black Man from Amazon to support this blog!